Sunday, December 21, 2014


Joe's Neighborhood

A priceless painting

8/28/2013

Thirty-three is an auspicious age. Even if you’re not going to be kissed by Judas, it seems to carry its own baggage. You know exactly what I mean, right? We all take out the yardstick to measure ourselves at different times of our lives.

“Where am I professionally?”

“What do I believe?”

“Did I really marry that guy?”

Thirty-three is just one of those yardstick times. By 33, you feel you have to decide on a direction. And many times the only options seem to be fishing in your long johns off the Grand Avenue bridge or working at a job you secretly hate. Let’s consider a different picture.

DM Art Center

Could I have your attention please? Ladies and gentlemen. A local boy out of Grimes, Iowa. With a bachelor’s degree from the famous Lawrence Conservatory of Music. And a master’s degree from the even more famous New England Conservatory of Music. Performing solo today but sometimes as a member of the duo “The Snacks.” Playing for the lunch crowd at Lucca, but tomorrow at a wedding or at an art opening or at any function, right here in Des Moines. Let’s give it up for Michael Pfaff.

joes1Yup, that’s him at the far back. No, he does not play some strange vegetable instrument. That’s a grand piano under Lucca’s creation of produce art. And, yes, Pfaff is not a big man and does seem to get lost amidst all the heirlooms.

“I was very small as a kid. My friends in school one time locked me in a tuba case… I was the only one who got detention,” Pfaff says with a small smile.

Pfaff is friendly, mellow, thankful for his gifts and aware of the hard work he did to master those gifts. He speaks with pride of his educational pedigree, but then in the next breath dismisses it all.

“I graduated from Lawrence and had nothing,” he says. “I didn’t know standards. I didn’t know pop songs. I didn’t know how to set up a PA. How to collect receipts for traveling. How to build a website. You’ve got to learn pop songs. When I went to the New England Conservatory, I studied with a guy who spent his life studying two notes. Really? You’re not going to entertain anybody with this. I have to be able to play Giant Steps. I have to be able to play the Beatles. Jazz for the sake of jazz is stupid.”

Pfaff was offered an internship at Lincoln Center in New York City.

“When I was a freshman in college, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra came through to do a clinic. They wanted four kids to do a transcription from a song, and they’d review you. I was one of them. The guy before me did some monster Coltrane transcription. I was next. Marcus Roberts was the pianist. It was a slow blues that I played. On the vibraphone. It was awesome. It’s like when you raise your hand, and you know they are going to call on you and you have the right answer. The business manager called Wynton Marsalis and told him that he had to have this kid come to New York. So I had an internship at Lincoln Center.”

And, again, Pfaff dismisses this accomplishment.

“I had a couple lessons with Wynton. He was cool, but I wasn’t there yet,” he says. “I was just trying to keep up. I would have said to me, ‘Don’t play those scales. Don’t play with the metronome. Let’s jam. Just jam.’ I just did enough for him to show I didn’t suck. I had it up here, but I didn’t have it out there.”

He speaks about his gig at Lucca.

“A teacher at Lawrence told me if someone paid me $200 to paint a painting, you don’t paint a $200 painting,” he says. “You paint a priceless painting. You just happen to get $200 for it. Like today, my only thought was, I get to play the piano. This is awesome. I found enough change to plug the meter. Here I am. I’m thrilled.”

Words are beginning to tumble on words.

joes2Pfaff on music: “Music is a way to expand our brains. Yes, I know that sounds like I’m high. But it’s true.”

And playing the piano: “You don’t just play a scale. You play the root. You hold down a note against a note. It is a relationship to the other note that is important.”

And teaching: “I have one student now. I want to teach more. My young students learn by learning the Spongebob Squarepants song. Because it’s all notes. Why not?”

With a wife and a young son of 9 months, Pfaff struggles to make it all work. His phone rings.

“It’s either my wife or a bill collector,” he says. “Usually, it’s a bill collector.”

He laughs at himself and his situation. But the sense of real problems, real struggles, are not so casually turned off with the phone. Did I tell you he’s 33 years old? He’s most commonly asked, “When are you going to get a job?”

Then Pfaff has to excuse himself to play. It’s time to go to work. Time to do what he does. He seems to bow his head in prayer over the keyboard. Transfixed. Focused.

The clink of flatware, china and glasses resonates off the brick walls of Lucca. It registers high and provides a lilting quality to the air. The low murmur of diners’ voices provides the bottom — the backbone. And the jazz piano? It floats in the middle. The bare bones of the Beatle’s “Yesterday” is laid out methodically by Pfaff.

“Did everyone get the structure?” he seems to say. And then he takes the tiniest thread, some meandering small note, and is off and running. Structure is gone.

“Yesterday” is left in the dust. And the piano keys race. The sound becomes lighter and quicker. The concentration more intense. Pfaff appears to lift up in his shirt and tie and pull our emotions veeringly higher. Up and up. There it is at last…! Ah, we can breathe. It’s descending. A familiar musical phrase. An echo at first. The true notes come dancing in. Slow. Languorous. At last, we are back with the Beatles. All is resolved.

Wipe your brow with your napkin. Did this 33 year old, with enough change to plug the meter, just give you a priceless painting? CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

Iowa Wild